I recently got a question from a friend who had been looking at the vintage chart that we keep on our Web site (a shot of the most current one is to the right; click on it to get a larger picture or on the link above for the PDF version). Most wines are pretty straightforward: they start out young and exuberant, gradually lose some of the youthful lushness and often come into better balance for it, and eventually fade into old age. Yes, this describes a life cycle. Wines, while not sentient, are alive.
Not all wines improve with age, and in fact eventually all wines decline, though this may be many decades later. But a wine's life cycle is not as simple as a linear curve, or even a bell curve, would suggest. Some wines -- think most dry rosés -- are at their best when they're at their youngest, and fade relatively quickly. Most ageable wines actually have curves with two peaks: a youthful peak a few years after bottling where the focus is on their lush, spicy fruit, and a mature peak some years later where the secondary flavors (nutty, caramel flavors for whites, and earthy, mineral flavors for reds) are more evident, and yet still in balance with fruit and spice that the wines displayed when they are younger. Sometimes wines transition gracefully from their youthful phase to their mature phase. But mostly not.
Perhaps you've had a red wine which has lost some of its youthful fruit but still provides a mouthful of tannins. Or one that seems less giving, aromatically, than it was some months before. It's actually fairly common: many wines have an intermediate stage where they are less enjoyable than they were, and less than they will be. This intermediate stage is often referred to as "closed" or "shut down". You can equally think of them as teenagers: no longer children, with the charms of youth, but not fully adult either, often gangly and awkward, prone to moodiness and unpredictability.
As it happens, two of our most important grapes are particularly notorious for this closed phase. One grape is Roussanne, which has a bizarre tendency to turn dark and oxidized at about age 5, stay that way for several years, tasting heavy and tired. Then, miraculously, it turns lighter again, much of its weight drops away, and you're left with an intensely mineral, nutty wine like very fine, dry sherry that the Perrins feel is the single best reflection of terroir that they make. The other grape is Mourvedre, whose (underappreciated) youthful red fruit character can fade several years before its substantial tannins have resolved to the point that it is again in balance. But the rewards of waiting are enormous, as Mourvedre produces wines that balance primary flavors like mineral, fruit and mocha with secondary flavors of leather, truffle and smoked meat.
We note wines that are in this in-between stage with the purple boxes in our vintage chart. If you have a wine in that phase, try to be patient; it will come out the other side. If you've opened one by mistake, give decanting a shot. It often helps. But the best thing to do, if you can, is wait.
PS For those who are interested, I participated in a remarkable dinner last summer that featured 21 different vintages and wines from Tablas Creek and Beaucastel. In my writeup, I note some of the wines that are in their closed phases. If you're the type who likes tasting notes and might want to know what "closed" tastes like, you might find it interesting.